As any Tour de France fan can tell you, it’s all in the timing. They would be referring to the breakaway, that strategic move in a bicycle race when a small group of riders pull ahead of the main pack, or peloton.
But timing is also critical when you visit Breakaway Cafe. Depending on when you make your move, you could be in for a breakfast burrito in a sunny window, tofu banh mi for lunch on the patio, or fish en papillote to the tune of a live acoustic guitar in the evening.
Whichever meal you choose for your breakaway (in more than one sense: the restaurant is located in a small commercial complex in the still mostly rural countryside south of Chapel Hill), you’re in for an enjoyable ride. And you can count on a gastronomic tailwind provided by menus that feature pasture-raised meats and local produce, including a strong vegetarian offering.
In the mornings, especially on weekends, you’ll likely be joined by a steady stream of bicyclists fueling up on a hearty breakfast and Counter Culture Coffee for rides on nearby country roads and mountain biking trails. More than a few of these folks will be friends of owner/chef Andy Pignatora, himself an avid cyclist. Most of the cycling memorabilia in the dining room, including the jersey behind the counter (which, as Pignatora will tell you, is autographed by a veritable who’s who of professional racing), were gifts from these friends.
You don’t have to be a personal friend of the owner — or even know how to ride a bike, for that matter — to appreciate the welcoming, laidback vibe of the place. Or to enjoy a breakfast offering that includes the likes of Breakaway Toast (avocado toast amped up with pico de gallo and lime), smoked salmon Benedict, King of the Mountain (fried egg, feta, lentils and avocado on toasted wheat), heritage pork sausage and cheddar scramble, and light, lacy vanilla buttermilk pancakes.
Stop in for weekday lunch, and chances are you’ll find a mix of professionals, workers on lunch break and young families (Breakaway Cafe has a dedicated play area and an exceptionally thoughtful kids’ menu). Take the wholesome route if you like — grilled portobello on ciabatta, say, or the Super Salad: a cornucopia of quinoa, chickpeas, nuts, seeds and seasonal fruit over greens dressed in a light red wine vinaigrette.
Alternatively, you might shift into a middle gear for a roast beef sandwich made with house-roasted grass-fed beef. Or crank it all the way up and indulge in one of Pignatora’s freewheeling variations on the poutine theme.
But that’s daredevil talk. Better to save the poutine for dinnertime, when you’ll want to share it with friends and wash it down with a local craft beer or glass of wine.
Canadian purists will chuckle at the substitution of cheddar for the traditional cheese curds in the Montreal poutine, but the Buffalo poutine is worth a detour (not surprisingly, as Pignatora hails from Buffalo, where he once worked in his father’s restaurant). North Carolina poutine, featuring house-smoked pulled pork and homemade pickles, is another winning option.
For that matter, most of the sandwiches, salads and burgers (grass-fed beef or vegetarian Impossible burger) on the lunch menu are also available in the evening. But if you’re in pursuit of a traditional appetizer-and-entree experience, you won’t have any trouble catching up to one here.
You can even put together a surprisingly elegant meal, given the casual setting. Start with Roots & Shoots, a stunner of a salad featuring red and yellow beets, julienne carrot, toasted almonds and fat blackberries on a bed of baby spinach, with a bright citrus vinaigrette on the side. Follow with a fine rendition of a classic fish en papillote: cod, steamed in parchment with carrots, tomatoes and thinly sliced potatoes.
Or take a more rustic route. Start with fried Brussels sprouts glazed in citrus honey, or Panko-breaded North Carolina shrimp, served with cocktail sauce and Sriracha aioli. For your main course, steak frites won’t let you down. But the chicken veggie pie — a miniature cast iron skilled filled to the brim with succulent shreds of chicken, assorted vegetables and just enough gravy to hold them together, topped with an airy pillow of puff pastry — gets my vote for the chef’s signature dish.
Regardless which route you choose, your final destination should be dessert, in the form of a flaky-crusted pie baked by the award-winning Slice Pie Company in Raleigh. Peach is a no-brainer if it’s in the offing, but you won’t go wrong with mixed berry or whatever fruit is in season.
Given its location in a modern commercial structure of glass, stone and steel, Breakaway Cafe is a surprisingly convivial setting. On Saturday evenings, live music — anything from bluegrass to acoustic guitar — warms up the vibe. When the weather is fair, a patio beckons with a view of the mature oaks and pines along Highway 15-501 (and an outdoor fireplace, when the weather cools).
But if you’re thinking this would be a great place to watch the Tour de France (you did know it starts on July 7, didn’t you?), think again. Breakaway Cafe is a lot of things, but it is not a sports bar. In fact, I’m guessing many of its most loyal fans are happiest when they’re out riding bikes of their own.
58 Chapelton Ct., Chapel Hill
Rating: 3.5 stars
Atmosphere: casual, contemporary with a bicycling motif
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: welcoming, attentive and eager to please
Recommended: Roots & Shoots, panko shrimp, poutine, fish en papillote, chicken veggie pie, steak frites, dessert (pie)
Open: Breakfast and lunch Tuesday-Sunday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
Reservations: not accepted
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.